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2006 - An opportunity not to be missed?

Disability Rights

2006 - An opportunity not to be missed?

Opinion piece by Graeme Innes AM

Human Rights and Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, 21 January 2006)

Australian summer holidays. The phrase evokes an image of sun, sand, slow days and late nights. But just imagine you and your mates are staying on the Gold Coast and it takes 20 phone calls for you to find a beachside unit with a shower you can use. Or the only wheelchair accessible restaurant in a 3km radius is fully booked so you have to eat take-away most nights.

For many of us, the great Aussie summer holiday presents a chance for the long-awaited trip to far-off lands, to unwind at the ultimate relaxing beachside cottage or to mix a little adventure, excitement and indulgence.

But for many of the five million or more Australians with disabilities, plans for a relaxing or adventurous holiday are often scuttled by the distress, frustration and embarrassment of trying to find accessible destinations and experiences.

In theory, the internet is making the world smaller, adventure travel now caters for older Australians elderly and there are few undiscovered places left on earth. Yet for many Australians, even the mundane aspects of holiday planning cannot be taken for granted.

Just imagine you have to pass on the trip to the tourism spot an hour out of town because there are no accessible toilet facilities. Or perhaps your last night at the nightclub is a disaster when the side entrance you were told was accessible is so cluttered with stored cleaning products it would take 20 minutes to clear.

Or imagine you and your family take in the new exhibition at the arts complex that includes works of art that can be touched. The floor is covered with uneven paving and it's impossible to identify where steps begin and end because you have vision impairment. After you bang your head into the second overhanging glass buttress you finally give up in frustration - and pain!

These are just a few examples of the day-to-day experiences of people with disabilities who try to work, play and participate in the community, but can't because of inadequate access in public buildings and spaces.

2006 provides us with an opportunity to begin to seriously address what award winning authors Associate Professor Christopher Newell and Dr Gerard Goggin refer to as a form of social apartheid arising from the way we design, build and manage our buildings.

Over the past few years, at the request of the Federal Government, the Australian Building Codes Board, along with disability advocates, design professionals, Government and the property industry have been preparing a new access standard for buildings.

The Board was asked to draft changes to the Building Code of Australia (BCA) to meet the level of access required by the Federal Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The Government intends to ask Parliament to adopt an Access to Premises Disability Standard which reflects the revised BCA.

This will mean that when developers and designers create buildings that comply with the BCA they will also be complying with the Disability Standard and will be protected from DDA complaints. The advantages to industry and the disability community are obvious: clarity; surety; consistency and improved access throughout Australia . Other countries, tied up in a mishmash of layers of building laws and anti-discrimination laws are watching Australia with a gleam of envy in their eyes as we move closer to completing these changes.

Unfortunately, this goal is being hindered because of a lack of agreement between some of the organisations involved in the negotiations over a number of crucial issues, such as access to the upper floor in small, low-rise buildings.

Interestingly, New Zealand has had far more demanding requirements than Australia for access to the upper floors in low-rise buildings for over 20 years.

Some disability advocates argue that the compromises already made in a draft Disability Standard are too great while those who think the measures will be too costly argue, like Chicken Little, that the sky will fall in.

In my view, the potential for greatly improved access warrants compromise. What would not be acceptable, however, would be expecting the disability community to compromise their existing rights to such an extent that the Disability Standard becomes a back-door way of reducing those rights in ways that cannot be justified.

The proposed Disability Standard includes a number of detailed exemptions and concessions that will be particularly important in addressing concerns expressed by small business and those occupying existing buildings. In this case it is the solution-rather than the devil-that is in the detail and I urge the Government to consider that detail closely when finalising the proposals.

2006 is the year we can begin to address long-standing discrimination in the way we construct buildings; it is the year we can make significant contributions to addressing the growing problems our ageing community will face; and surely it is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.